Novacek's picks: Ravens will pull off lone upset

By: Jay Novacek, NBCSports.com
By: Jay Novacek, NBCSports.com

SATURDAY
Ravens (12-5) at Titans (13-3)

The Ravens played an almost perfect game against the Dolphins last week. The defense was spectacular -- it always helps to score defensive touchdowns -- and the offense was its usual solid self. It only had one turnover and controlled the clock with the running game.

And now they turn their attention to earning a measure of revenge.

Baltimore's regular-season loss to Tennessee should serve as a healthy dose of motivation for the Ravens (I also think the defense will get extra motivation from Ed Reed not winning defensive player of the year). It'll be interesting to see how much emotion the team displays at the start.

The Titans should be able to handle most of it. They've been a great team this season because they've been so consistent on both sides of the ball. But I think their offense is going to be overwhelmed by the Ravens' defense.

But ... the Titans' defense should be able to handle the Baltimore offense, too. Having Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch return is a nice boost. It'll be a big test for the Ravens' offensive line, which has been dominant lately.

That means things like special teams and momentum swings are going to be the keys to winning this game. And I give that edge to Baltimore. It closed the season on a stronger note and is coming off an impressive playoff win.

Pick: Ravens
Cardinals (10-7) at Panthers (12-4)

Arizona's defensive line was mighty impressive against the Falcons. It disrupted the running game, put lots of pressure on Matt Ryan and threw off Atlanta's entire offensive scheme.

If they play that way again this week, Arizona has a great chance of winning this game.

The Cardinals haven't fared very well when they've traveled to the East Coast this season, though. Going away from the home crowd -- and losing that crowd noise -- is going to be a tough adjustment. Especially since the Panthers haven't lost at home this season.

Arizona's other big worry should be Anquan Boldin's health. If he can't play because of that hamstring injury, it's a huge setback to the Cardinals' offense. Steve Breaston is good, but Boldin's an elite player.

It also puts more pressure on Kurt Warner to be on target during the game. I think it's smart to play Edgerrin James right now instead of Tim Hightower, too. James is a veteran who showed last week he's still an effective runner, but he'll be just as important as a blocker in the backfield.

I think a lot things shape up well for the Panthers in this game. They're rested, they've watched the game film and saw what Arizona did last week. They should be able to put pressure on Warner, which is crucial when playing the Cardinals.

But the big difference in this game is going to be how the Carolina offensive line plays. They have to protect Jake Delhomme and open up running lanes for DeAngelo Williams. If they can't handle the Cardinals' front four, this is going to come down to the wire.

Pick: Panthers
SUNDAY
Eagles (10-6-1) at Giants (12-4)

Philadelphia beating the Vikings wasn't a huge surprise. What was a surprise was the way the Eagles did it.

Except for one run, they kept Adrian Peterson in check. That's tough to do. They weren't incredibly sharp on offense, but one big plays from Brian Westbrook was enough to seal the win.

I don't think that'll be enough for a win this week. These two teams know each other very well. The Eagles will try to disrupt Eli Manning and slow down the Giants' running game, while the Eagles will focus on the passing game and beating the Giants' secondary.

New York has to stay focused and commit to the running game. A healthy dose of Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward will help give Manning time to spot his receivers. He's been in this type of situation before -- and thrived. He'll do it again.

Pick: Giants
Chargers (9-8) at Steelers (12-4)

San Diego has the talent and the momentum to win this game. Beating the Colts last week was the most impressive outcome of the wild-card weekend.

But Pittsburgh's a different obstacle.

The Steelers' defense is more aggressive and better against the run, which should limit LaDainian Tomlinson (if he plays) and Darren Sproles. I'd be stunned if Sproles had a huge day against the Steelers. Pittsburgh's turf should also help slow down Sproles.

Also, the Steelers should have more success running the ball than the Colts did. The Chargers could probably get pressure on Ben Roethlisberger if Pittsburgh throws too often, but I'm confident the Steelers will be a balanced offense that will keep San Diego off balance.

Defense is what wins games this time of year. And the Steelers have that in spades.

Pick: Steelers

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